On Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, & Direct Experience

Ayn Rand
Photo of Ayn Rand taken by Phyllis Cerf

Dear Son,

Few figures will whip up controversy these days quite like the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982).  Reading her works was one of the most enlightening experiences that I have ever had, not just because the content of her works was so different, but because of how she polarizes people, and inspires incredible intellectual dishonesty in her detractors.

I spent many years avoiding the written works of Ayn Rand, because I considered myself a Feminist and a Liberal, and was told repeatedly that her books and her philosophy were the epitome of conservative greed, hatred of the poor, propaganda, and anti-woman sexism.  And like a fool who listened too much to ideology, I believed what I was told.  My first clue should have been just how much my peers applied venom to her works.

Here’s a quote I have heard a lot about Ayn Rand:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession  with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs

-John Rogers (Screenwriter)

It has all the earmarks of propaganda if ever I saw it.  It doesn’t attack the book directly, because then it would have to state facts.  It attacks the character of the fans, without ever actually saying what they do, that makes them bad.  It uses phrases that make them sound sick like “stunted”.  And it makes judgments on the quality of the book, “unbelievable”, without daring to use actual examples.

And that is usually how you will hear people criticize Rand’s work.  In fact, for awhile, it was very trendy to talk about how horrible a person was by bringing up how much he liked Ayn Rand.  If someone actually found Ayn Rand’s philosophy interesting and worth applying, in the past decade they called them “Randroids”, implying that they were machines, not people who actually think for themselves.

And all of this from people who usually object to Ayn Rands work because she doesn’t seem compassionate to the poor.  The moment someone dehumanizes their opponents, they seem to have lost the right to claim that they are compassionate.

The fact is that most of the people saying these things have never read her work, they are repeating it from their “thought leaders.”  And their thought leaders half the time haven’t read it either.  I’ve lost count of the number of criticisms of Ayn Rand’s books that repeat the same incorrect facts about characters and plots.  It is clear that one or two vehement anti-Rand people wrote hit pieces on her work that sounded good, but were based on reading the cliff notes or skimming the book with a closed mind – at best – and then their fans wrote similar articles with different words and spins without bothering to read the book at all.  In fact they get more inaccurate over time, like a game of “telephone” or “Indian whispers.”

I am ashamed to say that I believed them for a very long time, because I trusted the politics of the critics rather than my own mind.

And what is Rand’s Philosophy?  Why is she so hated by Liberals and Feminists and Socialists?  Well, that isn’t really something I want to spend one of these letters teaching you in detail.  I intend to get you to read Atlas Shrugged and Anthem in your teen years so that we can talk about them and you can make up your own mind.  But in the end the most of it comes down to this:

Atlas Shrugged
Cover of Atlas Shrugged

Rand teaches that the Liberty first and foremost that is critical to our common good.  That it is the natural leaders, the artists, and the hard-working businessmen who make the world a better, safer, happier place, and they can only do that if we leave them alone to be creative, innovative, and strong.

Liberty, to Rand, means first and foremost that a person should be allowed to work hard and enjoy the fruits of his labour.  If a man works hard to work a plot of land, and then has all of the food he grows taken away, then you have hurt that man, and he would be a fool to do it again.  If you do that to our leaders, take away the riches they earn by starting businesses, or take away the rights to their inventions, then will lose good leadership, and no one will be there to run businesses (to create jobs) or perform science (to create things that make our lives better).

That also means that a little selfishness can be a good thing.  A man who works hard to get rich in business, makes jobs, creates a good or service, and makes many lives easier through the business he creates to get rich.  The artist who creates art to be famous has made the world a more beautiful place in the process.

The more selfish the world, and the more we respect private property and expect people to earn their way, Rand believed, the better we would be.  That smart people acting in their own self interest will make sure there are jobs, art, and new innovations all the time.  And that if they are free, people will also take care of the poor voluntarily, either because the poor person is their friend or family, or because people would (selfishly) rather live in a place where the poor had food and shelter so that they could find a job quickly, than in a place where the poor had to turn to crime.

Cover of Anthem
Cover of Anthem by Ayn Rand

Which means, to Rand, government forcing the wealthy to give up their self-interest through taxes, social programs, and regulations only prevented them from doing their best work.  It often made them frustrated and often made the best and brightest of us prefer to simply walk away.  In the meantime, only a portion of the money that the government takes to help “the poor” usually goes into poorly-run programs that don’t actually help, while the rest goes to paying the salaries of do-nothing government employees, and paying for the lavish and wasteful lifestyles of government officials.

From an economics and historical perspective, most of what she is teaching is right, or is pretty close to right.  Selfish people do tend to make the best artists and businessmen, it times where there is less government support programs, the poor tend to stay poor for much shorter times, government agencies do waste tons of money, government programs rarely do a good job, and if taxes or rules get too high, business leaders stop trying to grow their companies, or take them to different countries.

Anthem by Ayn Rand

And her books are from from evil or hateful towards the poor.  Her idea of “selfishness” that the critics hate, doesn’t mean being bratty or anti-social, and it doesn’t even mean not taking care of the poor, it means everyone does their best to make their own mark in society doing what they love and are good at, and then spending what they earn first to make themselves happy, then to invest in their neighbourhoods to make sure that the conditions that make you happy stay.  The criticisms of her work just fall apart with a little critical thought?

So why all the hate and lies about Rand’s work?  Any why does everyone try so hard to paint her as a lunatic and hypocrite?  (Certainly, she was an eccentric.)  the answer is simple:  because if people believed what Rand taught, then their ideologies would lose power.

Many of the people who attack rand believe in creating big government programs, work for one, or study a discipline where big government programs are where their jobs will come from.  Many more are people who rely on social programs right now, and are afraid that if those went away, or had to be cut back because the government reduced taxes, that they would wind up on the street.  Some critics are invested in a Victim narrative, while Rand’s books challenge that because they are about the good people can accomplish when they don’t think and feel like victims.

And so, many people would rather lie about Ayn Rand, and keep others from giving her ideas a fair shake, than stand up to her ideas in a fair debate.

Am I fan of Rand’s Work? Yes.  It is really worth reading.  Do I follow Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism? Not really, I certainly have a lot of ideas in common with Objectivists, though.  I found Atlas Shrugged inspiring.  It challenged my ideas, and made me rethink some things.  And in reading it, I saw its real flaws as well as its merits.  Something that her detractors didn’t trust me to do, and so lied to me.  And in doing so, all they really did was help me see how much they were willing to lie for their causes, which made me ask another question that is a very important one:

If they have to lie to protect their ideas, are those ideas really strong enough and honest enough to be worth supporting?

I will leave you to answer that one yourself.



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